Social relationships are the foundation of human adaptation, structuring cooperation, conflict, and critical health outcomes. Densely-networked relationships make possible cumulative human culture, while institutional workarounds of social minds sustain nation states and the global economy. Human uniqueness inheres in human sociality.

My research concerns the origins and empirical dynamics of human social relationships--the social contexts of cooperation and conflict, the forms and functions of social sentiments, and the co-evolution of human interdependence, social norms, and brains. Specific questions include: What psychological systems regulate relational behaviors such as sharing, exploitation, tolerance, deference, play, and punishment? What are the phylogenetic and functional origins of moral emotions and social norms? And through what biological and psychological mechanisms do ecological, demographic, and cultural variables influence social-relational strategies?

I study these big questions by focusing on several empirical and theoretical problems at complementary timescales and levels of analysis:


1) The phylogeny, forms, & functions of emotions, attitudes, & affect
  • the evolution & functions of laughter & humor [PDF]
  • phylogenetic adaptationism & the emotions [PDF]
  • form & function in a Yasawan (Fiji) affect lexicon [poster]
  • a theory of sentiments applied to "contempt" [PDF]

2) Individual differences in social strategies
  • conditional defection in subclinical psychopathy [PDF]
  • conversational dominance in subclinical psychopathy [link]
  • the influence of men's strength on their person perception [PDF]
  • the signal value of non-violent risk taking [PDF]

3) Social interactions, social relationships, & social norms
  • defector detection during "small talk" [link]
  • conversational coordination & cooperation [PDF]
  • moral parochialism across societies [PDF]
  • RICH economic games in Yasawa, Fiji [PDF & SOM]

4) Biological bases of social relationship regulation
  • BBS commentary on brain-culture co-evolution (pp. 200-201) [PDF]
  • Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) behavioral pilot work here
  • neurogenetics of psychopathy across cultures [collaboration here]


Methodologically I am a pluralist, drawing on diverse tools and theories as they help me pose and answer novel questions about humanity. At the end of the day I care about the empirical reality of human nature, so I value induction alongside deduction in the scientific method; too often in studies of human behavior the real-world explananda remain underdescribed. I also see no inherent incompatibility between Universalism and Constructionism, nor between Science and Interpretivism, just methodological synergies and open empirical questions. Currently I focus on basic research, confident that quality data underlay effective intervention and activism. I conceive of psychological anthropology as the hub of a truly consilient science of the human condition.


Cross-cousins joking harshly during the New Year "happy time"



Conversational triad in our lab study of small talk among strangers



The Yasawa Sharks rugby club comes together before a match



Assessing cultural style similarity among interlocutors & PDG players
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Matthew Gervais,
Nov 19, 2012, 4:45 PM
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Matthew Gervais,
Aug 16, 2015, 4:18 PM
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Matthew Gervais,
Feb 18, 2014, 9:39 PM
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Matthew Gervais,
Aug 31, 2016, 10:46 AM
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Matthew Gervais,
Mar 4, 2013, 2:03 PM
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Matthew Gervais,
Mar 21, 2016, 11:04 AM